How To Stop Thinking About Something or Someone

a terrified child laying in bed

Here are 5 different techniques to use to regain control of your thoughts. Learn and remember to use at least a couple of them to use when your thoughts seem out of control.

Having the same thoughts repeat in your mind isn’t always useful. If you need to remember to do something, maybe. Even then, it uses up your brain’s “processing power” that could be better spent on doing something else. Do it, whatever it is, and it’s done.

Suppose you’re mentally rehearsing. That’s useful. It’s intentional. You’re carving neural pathways trying to make your performance smoother and faster.

There’s a point, however, where it becomes annoying. It’s not rehearsing. It’s obsessing.

It’s frustrating. You tell yourself, “I know. I know!”

Or: “Oh, come on!”

What you know, more than anything else, is it’s time for your mind to move on. If you don’t, you feel like you might go crazy.

So just stop, why don’t you?

Yes, it would be best if you stopped thinking about something, whatever it is. You’re the one who needs to be in control of your thoughts and actions, not a slave.

Easier said than done.

Dealing with your mind when it can’t stop thinking about something is like encountering an irrepressible nag. If the annoyance was human, you could get up and leave the area.

It’s not. You, yourself, are the nag. That’s a problem. The trouble is you can’t easily leave yourself.

Sometimes nags get hit. Emergency departments are full of patients who have been accused of being a nag by their assailants. You definitely don’t want to hit yourself.

People who lightly cut their wrists sometimes talk about letting these bothersome feelings out.

You, yourself, are the nag. That’s a problem because you can’t easily leave yourself!

It would be nice if it worked that way. All they let out is blood and end up with a scar.

How you react can create problems in and of itself. Striking a middle ground is usually best. You don’t want to forget what you’re thinking, yet you don’t want to ruminate. Dwelling on anything doesn’t do any good after you’ve stopped adding new information or adopted a new approach to the situation.

Recurring thoughts can ruin your mind and body. Compare it to a wad of food you’ve chewed and swallowed. Want to bring it back up? It’s not going to taste as good the second time. Sometimes the meal will have turned into something gross. The food will be mixed with stomach acids. Further, doing so can have far-reaching health effects like damaging your epiglottis, the flap keeping the hydrochloric acid in your stomach where it belongs.

Or compare it to constipation, if you will. It’s getting stuck on a non-material occurrence.

As digestion, living, experiencing, and processing the experiences need to be smooth. The food becomes part of your body. The experiences become part of your mind.

With a little work, you can stop thinking about this something and get gentle relief.

Warning: this is a wide-ranging topic

The recurring thoughts can be trivial or serious. The recurring idea can be the catchy verse of a song. It can be the scene surrounding someone you held in your arms as they died, with half of their skull blown off. It can be about the need to make sure you didn’t forget your keys or some creative obsession. It can be your former girlfriend or boyfriend.

It can be anything.

If you were to try to talk your recurring thoughts with someone, for one topic, the response might be a knowing chuckle. Attempting to discuss another aspect may meet with incomprehension; still another, revulsion. If ever there was an area where you’d benefit from helping yourself, this is it.

What it is that’s starting the thought cycle isn’t as important as the effect it has on you.

A good analogy is the case of a broken computer and the average user. If the computer won’t turn on, and it’s plugged in, and the cords are connected where they should be, you can’t fix it. You’re going to need professional help.

On the other hand, if the computer does turn on, maybe you can do something to make it run better. Get rid of the virus. Increase RAM. And so on. You’re free to troubleshoot.

If the recurring thoughts are truly shutting you down you’re not going to be able to fix yourself.

If you can’t stop thoughts of eating chocolate chip cookies, try doing what you can to do so you’re not reminded of them. Try acknowledging you like them and then understand what you’d like more. This is an opportunity to practice a little creativity.

The same thing goes for lust. Acknowledge their comeliness. Understand what it is you find attractive about him or her. Understand them in the greater scope of creation. How can you honor your feelings of attraction and creation itself? Lust, perhaps the most common of the seven deadly sins, doesn’t have to lead to stupid decisions. You can turn your desire into the creative force it was meant to be.

Sometimes it’s best to give a problem a name.

We’ll call the thing you can’t stop thinking about Loop. A loop goes around in a circle. A loop is what sometimes happens when you’re being driven mad, figuratively, or literally.

With recurring thoughts, your thoughts go around and around in a circle.

It’s like a mental wheel. Stop it from spinning in midair. Put it down on the ground and let it take your somewhere good.

First, be kind to yourself

Not every annoying thought has the same kind of importance.

You and everyone else can get stuck on an idea you find funny, or odd or another way and mull it. That’s wasting your brainpower and attention. The gravity of doing this isn’t as much as, say, another kind of thought leaving you mentally powerless.

It’s good to try to help yourself. One person can’t know and do everything, however. You can sometimes make more progress turning to a professional in some cases.

Sometimes timing is terrible. Sometimes there isn’t any good time for something to happen. Some things are out of our control. As soon as you’re able, try to consider your situation objectively. Try to see everything from the bird’s eye view.

One traumatic thing that can happen to someone is being fired from a job before a weekend. That gets these mental loops going! Going over the causes, again and again, can be good to a certain point. There are also a lot of things to consider. How are you going to pay your bills? Did you have people relying on that paycheck? What are they going to do? What are you going to do with yourself? Are you going to get the same kind of job?

Then there are questions about the specifics of the job and what happened. Was it political? Did you screw up? Did your boss or someone make a mistake?

The questions can go on and on.

You need to learn the lessons and then move on. You don’t want all of these thoughts affecting your mindset. You’ll lose that spark other people sense about you. You need to recover mentally and move on.

Losing a relationship is much the same thing.

The first step is to realize you need to impose limits on your brain.

You’re allowed to think about this for an hour. Or, if it’s a complicated and involved situation, you can have two or three. Whatever. The important thing is you set limits and not before you go to bed. You break the Loop and make it have a beginning, middle, and end. The goal here is to come up with actionable insights. To grow and develop.

Address major loops with an After-Action Review

When you want to stop thinking about something, a useful framework for tackling this is to conduct your own After-Action Review (AAR).

This process, used to cull lessons from training conducted in the military, calls for asking yourself and other involved people five questions.

  • What did I think was going to happen? (Past) 

  • What happened? (Present) 

  • What went right? (Positive)

  • What went wrong? (Negatives) 

  • What should I do next time? (Future) 

Be firm with yourself. Be purposeful. Allow yourself to think as long as you’re shooting hoops or going for a walk. You want to undertake a safe activity that allows your brain to disengage. You don’t want to drink alcohol or drive or yammer on to someone else. If you do decide to talk it out with a friend, have some structure to the events in your mind.

If you decide to seek professional help, the same basic rules apply. Try to put some structure on the events. Harnessing them, making them into a coherent story, is the way to move forward. How much of the event is about you? How much is unrelated to you?

Some people are going to be better able to do this than others. Some situations are more overwhelming than others.

Conducting your own AAR is a skill. It’s worthwhile to do it a few times before you need the skill. Practice at the close of today by asking yourself the five questions so you can learn the most you can out of what you did today.

Basic strategies to stop thinking about something

1. Supplanting

What the goal here is to replace one thought with another: distraction.

If a song is stuck in your head, try listening to another song. Sing and dance to it. Embrace it.

If you keep thinking about how awful, stupid, or ridiculous someone else is, try considering another aspect of them. What were they like as a child? What kind of activities do they like? In what ways would you like to be more like them? What lessons do they bring into your life? Take the thoughts from a different angle.

Obsessing about whether a door is locked after you’ve left the house? Acknowledge whether it is or isn’t or whether you can know the truth of the matter and then move on. What kind of routine should you develop to make sure the door is locked? What are some of the other things you should check? What’s the best way to make sure you know whether or not the door is locked? Are the windows closed? Instead of making it a cycle about whether or not you locked the door, make it a checklist where you’re addressing all of the possible security shortcomings.

Meet obsession with creativity.

2. Think in bets

What are the chances something like this has happened? What are the odds? Were you affected by lousy luck?

By thinking in bets, you change the internal conversation. You become analytical. You consider the different factors influencing an outcome. Meet the Loop with analysis.

3. Uncover the roots

Understand what it is about the topic leading you to mull it over. Is there something about it that’s important to you for some reason?

In many ways, it’s similar to discovering what lies behind an episodic dream. The conscious mind and subconscious mind influence each other.

If you’re going to unearth the roots of the mental Loop, it’s useful to differentiate the subconscious and the unconscious. They are two hypothetical divisions to the “hidden” mind, the mind that’s the flipside of the conscious mind.

Your mind, my mind, and everyone else’s are committed to survival. Some thoughts are threatening for a variety of reasons.

Also, people develop over time. Some thoughts you have as a child can be seen as threatening due to this childish mental capacity and judgment.

These thoughts can be socially unacceptable ideas, wishes, and painful memories or emotions. These thoughts are pushed way down deep into the mind to the point where you’re unconscious of them.

The subconscious, therefore, incorporates the opposite of the conscious mind, the part of the mind making sense of day-to-day activities.

The unconscious mind, on the other hand, is the part of the mind where the objectionable thoughts get exiled to.

Uncovering the roots can be delicate work. You may need to have professional help to do so.

In this case, you’re addressing the Loop with understanding as to why it’s looping.

4. Ignore it

This is a variation on the supplanting technique. By doing this, you’re hoping the looped thoughts take care of themselves and go away on their own. The premise is other thoughts, other activities, fill their place as your life goes on. You’re making room in your mind by creating a vacuum of attention. Since nature abhors a vacuum, other concerns spring forth to fill the space.

This may be a solid strategy for lesser concerns but may lead to repressed thoughts for more major mental traumas and obsessions.

How to tell the difference depends on what it is. Does it deal with a significant concern that’s a threat to you as a biological organism? Is it about the danger of death? Of your basic safety? Of your progeny? If it does, it should not be ignored. It might lead to repression, and that leads to you not understanding significant portions of your life.

By ignoring the Loop you’re addressing it by trying to crowd it out.

5. Acknowledge it, label it, change it

Being judgemental gets a bad rap. Mostly it’s from people who are being judged unfairly.

Nobody minds being complimented. That, too, is a form of judgment. Complements usually don’t sting, however; even lame ones. It’s a favorable judgment.

To get rid of a thought loop with this method, as fairly as you can, judge the situation. Put labels on the various aspects of it. Conclude.

Indict yourself if you’re guilty. You’re not perfect. Nobody is. You don’t do everything right all of the time. Nobody does. Learn from the situation so you can improve next time.

For example, if a person starts yelling at you for what seems like no good reason, consider the situation.

You were parking your car.

They were driving in the opposite direction. They had stopped and put their turn signal on. You unconsciously ignored it. You were looking for a parking space, after all. You weren’t thinking so much about what other people were doing.

They got out of your car, angry, and started yelling at you.

You started to worry they’ll pull a weapon on you. Your danger sense, what keeps you alive, started alarming, warning. You were encountering a threat.

When the scene was happening, you started pointing behind the other driver.

Suddenly they turned around and got back in their car and left.

Now you can’t stop thinking about it.

You didn’t think twice about their turn signal as they were trying to turn into the other space. Did you? You were oblivious.

The other driver didn’t make any allowances for your obliviousness. They got angry! They were rash, impulsive.

As for you, you might have called them an expletive.

Your neglect to be polite got under their skin. Maybe you should do better in the future.

You can try this with any Loop.

I’m not going to do that. I’m not that kind of person. That’s not what I do. I don’t believe in that.

This can be a dangerous thing, however, and lead to willful ignorance. It’s best attempted after reflection.

In this technique, you’re meeting the Loop with a personal policy.

Not a technique but useful anyway

A thought Loop is the kind of thing you can benefit from talking to God about. That’s prayer. It’s a free flowing reflection, kind of the opposite variety of the After Action Review detailed earlier. Prayer shines at giving focus. When we struggle with any of this, God or one of his representatives can and often does, help us help ourselves. We make the choices ourselves when it comes to trying to stop thinking about something.

By breaking these Loops, you can get regular sleep and not have these thoughts slow down your brain. You can have more control.

For further reading:


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 


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